It took the joyful return of the Master Builder, Billy Donovan. And the spirit of people like Augie Greiner.
BY BUDDY MARTIN
If you go in the WayBack Machine when basketball was only a mere shadow of itself, when the Florida Gators played in what was considered a pretty good facility called Florida Gym, a place unlike most which boasted among the first glass backboards, when the UF team had only a few scholarships and was coached by a member of the football staff, it would look and feel like the Dark Ages. Recruiting not being at all sophisticated, Gator players were a mixed bag from anywhere and everywhere. One such player was Augie Greiner from St. Louis, who first arrived at the Gainesville Airport in the early 1950s, sight unseen, got in a cab and promptly asked the driver: “Which way to the beach?” The driver pointed to the East and said, “Eighty miles that way.” Instead, they drove to the Florida campus, where Augie’s fascinating life – after a rather ordinary career as a player – would take root. Years later he would buy a condo at the Crescent Beach. As I watched the joyful celebration of Billy Donovan’s return Saturday night, I thought about Augie Greiner and how in his own way he helped shape the future of Gator basketball. You probably wonder how the dots are connected, but you’re going to be surprised how easily they did.
In short, pound for pound, dollar for dollar, nobody was more generous with his time and effort in enthusiastically supporting Florida basketball than Augie Greiner. There were some people with more zeroes on their bank account, but none with a bigger heart. Augie was among the first to greet Donovan’s arrival in 1996, as he had done every coach since Norm Sloan.
Augie and another former player, broadcaster Bill Koss, lent an immeasurable depth of support and loyalty to Donovan that almost cannot be calculated. It was their dream to see Gator hoops grow into a major force with a highly respected reputation, as opposed to basketball being just another sport at a “football school.” In short, gaining respect. I think we saw all that pride and respect walk back in that door again Saturday night. The naming of Billy Donovan Court was long overdue and the sheer delight and emotional connection with Gator fans felt transformative. It was more of a coronation than a celebration. Wisely, when Donovan arrived at UF to begin his 19-year reign, he immediately befriended the football coach. It was the year Steve Spurrier’s team would win the school’s first national football championship. Donovan embraced the football program instead of being in competition with it. And Spurrier reciprocated by supporting Donovan and even helping him in recruiting when prospects would come to visit campus. “We’re good friends and I admire everything he’s done,” said Spurrier, who reunited with Billy Saturday night with a hug. “He’s the winningest basketball coach in school history, so I guess we have a few things in common. It was really neat to see his name on the basketball court. And it will be there forever. “Billy forgot to say one thing,” Spurrier told me a couple of days later. “When I talked to him afterward, I said, ‘You forgot to say this was the greatest honor of your life.’” Having his name on the field across Gale Lemerand, Spurrier knew that. And Donovan agreed. “Somebody said, ‘Well, no bigger a deal than you winning the Heisman Trophy’,” recalled Spurrier. “Of course it is. They award the Heisman every year to somebody.” Donovan’s brief talk, of course, was centered on everybody else, suggesting that the names of his former assistant coaches and players should be on that floor as well. Billy Donovan is also a master of humility. In years to come, the solidarity between football and basketball relationships paid dividends to both programs. "Our legacies as coaches are not going to be about how many games or how many championships we won. Our legacies as coaches are always going to be measured by how our players talk about us,” Donovan said in addressing the crowd. When Spurrier left and Urban Meyer wound up as football coach, he and Donovan lived in the same upscale neighborhood in Southwest Gainesville – their houses about a half a football field apart and I nicknamed it “The Cul de Sac of Champions” in Meyer’s biography “Urban’s Way.” They became friends during that remarkable era of dominance: Four national titles in five years. Meyer said his 2006 national champions benefitted by observing Donovan’s 2005-2006 title team. “I still think a lot of our success of that whole ’06 (football) team was because we got to experience one of the greatest basketball teams ever to play the game — the most unselfish, probably, I’ve ever seen,” Meyer says. “I became a better coach watching that team. I bent Billy’s ear to death.” As we look in the rear-view mirror at such an incredible footprint of champions, we come to appreciate what a mammoth accomplishment we have witnessed at Florida during that era. That pride reverberated in the O-Dome Saturday night as Donovan went for a pre-game walkabout and hug-a-thon. One of proudest people on hand Saturday night was Jeremy Foley, who was primarily responsible for hiring Donovan and served as AD during Spurrier’s tenure (although he didn’t hire Steve). Very diplomatically, Donovan graciously thanked the current boss Scott Stricklin. But in context later he thanked Foley, calling him “the greatest athletic director” ever. I never saw Foley’s smile light up like that. Those fortunate enough to hear Donovan’s heartfelt talk before ESPN’s SEC channel cut him off were very touched and rejuvenated. But back to Augie and Billy. They became so close that they began an annual comedy routine as the prelude to the Ocala Gator Tip-Off Club. Like two young boys they pranked each other. This is how I described it in a column after Augie’s death in 2010: “Once he (Augie) sat in a chair while several hundred people watched Billy Donovan mousse his hair to match the ‘do that the Florida basketball coach was rocking back in those days. “Another time, over a decade ago, Donovan forced Augie Greiner to wear a dress because the founder of the Ocala Gator Tip-off Club didn’t have any female members in the group. “Year after year at the annual tip-off dinner, Donovan and Greiner made sport of each other, all in the name of good fun, all in the name of raising money for basketball scholarships. All in the name of the team and school they both loved so deeply and for which Augie played basketball in the 1950s. “They took turns being the foil. And they played it like two kids in a game of one-upmanship – with great fun and glee. I don’t know which of them enjoyed it the most. “When it was Augie’s turn, he dressed Donovan in a ‘Billy The Kid’ outfit. Another year, assistant head coach Larry Shyatt announced the appearance of a brand new recruit, ‘Gunner,’ and Greiner came out wearing a Gator uniform, dribbling a basketball with one hand and leaning on a cane (for real) with the other. “There was always a prank.” At those dinners, their bonding entertained several hundred Ocala people who became big Gator basketball fans, many of whom bid on items to support Gators scholarships and also became season-ticket holders. So Augie was on the minds of many. Billy and his family will never forget him. At the O-Dome Saturday night, Billy’s parents, Bill Sr. and Joan, ran into their good friend Susan Greiner, widow of Augie. “How do you think Augie would have liked tonight?” Bill Sr. asked her. “He would have been bursting with pride,” said Sue. I think that pretty much describes how most Gators felt.